How to learn languages – Danish

The Germanic languages are split into North and West (East, represented notably by Gothic, has died out).

North Germanic excludes Finnish, which is not Indo-European at all. Historically, they were themselves split into Western (Norwegian, Faroese, Icelandic) and Eastern (Swedish, Danish and some other regional varieties). Nowadays, the split is considered more Insular (Icelandic, Faroese) versus Scandinavian (Norwegian, Danish, Swedish), although exact terminology varies.

Norwegian is a peculiar case. Over centuries of rule from Copenhagen, the language of administration in Norway was effectively Danish (albeit spoken with a Norwegian accent and generally referred to in Norway as “Norwegian”), and over time this was adopted in formal settings by many educated speakers in the Oslo area. However, traditional spoken dialects were barely affected, particularly in remote fjord areas to the west, and they remained more Western (i.e. more similar to insular languages such as Icelandic rather than to Danish). Upon independence, Norway was left with no option but to adopt two standards – one representing the traditional rural dialects known as Nynorsk “New Norwegian”, and another representing the previous administrative language initially often referred to as “Dano-Norwegian” but officially known as Bokmål ‘Book Tongue’. The latter is predominant, but both retain equal status nationally.

Of the three largest Scandinavian populations, Norwegians are used to dialect variation (even internally) and are thus the best at understanding either of the other two. Broadly, Norwegian (at least in Oslo) is closer to Danish in writing but to Swedish in speech. Danes and Swedes struggle to understand each other’s spoken languages, although with a bit of effort on behalf of both speaker and listener there is some mutual comprehension between eastern Danish and southern Swedish dialects (either side of the Oresund). Scandinavians have little difficulty reading each other’s languages.

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Swedish is the major Scandinavian language – its near 10 million speakers account for half the total. However, it is not one in which I have any active competence – which brings us to Danish…

Phonology

Among Germanic languages, Danish is the French of the operation – remarkably phonologically reduced.

Perhaps the most noteworthy feature is stød, whereby syllables may be separated by a “creaky voice”, a break feature similar to but not quite the same as a soft glottal stop, often accompanied by an apparent change in pitch. This is not always reflected in writing: læser ‘read(s)’ (the verb form) exhibits stød before the -er suffix, but læser ‘reader’ does not. No one quite knows how or when this developed (although it was certainly present by 1600), and it is not found in traditional southern dialects.

Danish also vocalises some consonants after vowels; e.g. dag ‘day’ (pronounced similarly to English ‘die’), skov ‘forest’.

A notable feature also is the softness of consonants (voiced consonants are frequently softened to become devoiced and those which were initially devoiced are softened further), particularly medially; e.g. the first syllable of at hedde ‘to be called/named’ is not much different from English ‘hell’, and the <b> in at købe ‘to buy’ is actually close to an English /w/.

Standard

Danish was distinct from Swedish by the time it began to be written down around 1200 (until then the administrative language of Denmark, which at the time included part of what is now southern Sweden, was in fact Latin).

Particularly from the 17th century, Danes played a disproportionate role in the development of linguistics and took a keen interest in the grammar of their own tongue. Gradually they codified a standard language, based generally on the educated Copenhagen dialect.

Nevertheless, the rapid changes in pronunciation in Danish mean that several common words (notably some personal pronouns) are spelled irregularly.

The Danish alphabet adds the letters æ, å and œ, which often mark the equivalent of umlaut (i.e. are grammatically distinctive). Officially clauses must be separated by commas, but in practice usage varies.

Vocabulary

Danish (and, broadly, Scandinavian) vocabulary is overwhelmingly Germanic, deriving from the Norse spoken by the Vikings.

However, notably, it was reinforced by trading terms from Low German (i.e. what are now traditional dialects of northern Germany and the Netherlands somewhere between Standard German and Standard Dutch) in the Middle Ages, meaning that business and economic terminology is very often similar to German or Dutch (with the Norse-derived terms displaced).

The Danish numbering system retains the vigesimal (i.e. twenty-based) system used by the vikings – Danish is the only Scandinavian language which retains it. This means that higher numbers are marked not by the number of tens, but by the number of twenties; this includes halves, and halves are counted to the next whole: in effect, therefore, 90 is based on ‘half-to-five-times-twenty’.

  • 1 en/et; 2 to; 3 tre; 4 fire; 5 fem; 6 seks; 7 syv; 8 otte; 9 ni; 10 ti;
  • 11 elleve; 12 tolv; 15 femten; 16 seksten; 20 tyve; 21 enogtyve;
  • 30 tredive; 40 fyrre; 50 halvtreds; 60 tres; 70 halvfjerds; 80 firs; 90 halvfems.
  • 100 hundrede; 1000 tusind; 456789 fire hundrede seksoghalvtreds tusind syv hundrede niogfirs.

Another peculiarity is that Danish counts singular or plural according to the last number – so, for example, 101 or 4001 takes a singular.

Swedish and Norwegian use a ten-based counting system and place ones after tens: thus 92 is nittiotvå [‘ninetytwo’] in Swedish but tooghalvfems [‘twoandhalftofive(times twenty)’] in Danish.

In the modern language, there is little resistance to borrowings from English (given the high proficiency Scandinavians have in it), including even occasionally of entire phrases.

Interviews in English are very often shown on Danish television without subtitles or dubbing, and indeed English is often the language of communication across Scandinavian borders (for example, it is the language of Nordic MTV).

Grammar

In the Standard language, Danish nouns may be one of two genders (“common” or “neuter”), and are generally marked for the plural in -(e)r (with another smaller group of short words, usually common gender, in -e). However, in the absence of any preposition (in some instances), adjective or determiner, any definite article appears joined to the noun as a suffix: common –(e)n, neuter -(e)t and plural –ne; thus hund ‘dog’, hunden ‘the dog’, hunde ‘dogs’, hundene ‘the dogs’. Aside from in archaic set phrases, there are no case markings in modern Danish, although possession is marked by a clitic -smin fars hus ‘my father’s house’.

In Swedish and Norwegian, the definite article suffix appears even where the noun is supported by an adjective or determiner: Danish det gamle hus, Norwegian det gamle huset ‘the old house’.

Both Norwegian Standards maintain three genders; Standard Swedish has just common and neuter, as Danish.

Danish main verbs, fundamentally, are marked for present (-(e)r) or past (generally –te or –de, although as in English there is a group of “strong” verbs which mark their past forms by changing the root vowel); notably, in all modern Scandinavian languages, these are not marked to agree with their subject in the modern language. There is also a specific habitual passive marker (which can be used in any tense) -(e)s; bogen læses ‘the book is read’ [generally]. Verbs also have participle forms (typically in –t), which may be used with the common irregular verbs at være ‘to be’ or at blive ‘to become’ to form a passive (used typically for one-off action) or at have ‘to have’ to form the perfect aspect (for completed action). Aside from in deliberately archaic phrases, there is no distinct subjunctive/optative mood in modern Danish.

Key prepositions:

  • ‘to, at’, til ‘to, towards’, ‘in’, med ‘with’, mod ‘against’.

As in most Germanic languages, adverbs are unmarked. Adjectives, however, have varying forms depending on whether they are used attributively (in which case they are placed before the noun) or predicatively and, in the former case, what their environment is. In most circumstances (when indefinite or used predicatively) adjectives agree with their noun by adding –t for the neuter singular or –e for plurals (there is no change for common singular): en stor bog ‘a big book’, et stort hus ‘a big house’, store boger ‘big books’; bogen er stor ‘the book is big’, huset bliver stort ‘the house gets big’. Definite attributive adjectives always add –e: den store bog ‘the big book’, det store hus ‘the big house’. Generally, no -e is required with adjectives already ending in a vowel; some adjectives also display other irregular modifications. In practice, this means adjectives often appear in the -t form in general use because after  det ‘that’ the neuter form is required: det er fint ‘that is fine’.

Key personal pronouns (1st, 2nd, 3rd person):

  • Singular: jeg, mig; du, dig; han/hun, ham/hende (impersonal den and det)
  • Plural: vi, os; I, jer; de/dem.

Danish also distinguishes between the third person possessive adjective hans/hendes ‘his/her’ and the reflexive sin/sit/sine: hans bog ‘his (someone else’s) book’; sin bog ‘his (own) book’.

Danish did previously have De/Dem as polite second person forms (both singular and plural), but since the ’70s these have dropped almost completely out of use.

Scandinavian languages are fundamentally SVO and V2 languages. The verb phrase stands as the second element in the clause, regardless of what the first element is; this is the case even if the first element is itself a clause: Da jeg boede i det hus, havde jeg hunder ‘When I lived in that house, I had dogs [When I lived in that house, had I dogs]’. The negative particle ikke generally follows the verb: jeg havde ikke hunder ‘I did not have dogs’.

Character

In general, Scandinavian languages initially appear quintessentially Germanic, with a focus around the noun. This is reflected in Danish speech, where the emphasis is placed firmly on nouns.

Danish is noted for its remarkable phonology; it can almost appear as if words are scarcely pronounced at all. On the other hand Swedish, and to a lesser extent Norwegian, stand out among West European languages for their almost tonal system of pronunciation.

What next?

Time to get to West Germanic (which includes, of course, English)…

Fader vår, du som er i Himlene, helliget vorde ditt navn, komme ditt rike, skje din vilje, som i Himmelen, så og på jorden. Gi oss i dag vårt dagelige brød, og forlat oss vår skyld, som vi og forlater våre skyldnere, og led oss ikke inn i fristelse, men frels oss fra den onde.

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One thought on “How to learn languages – Danish

  1. […] arguably one standard of Norwegian) and the Eastern or Scandinavian ones (Norwegian, Swedish and Danish). To some degree each group of these is mutually intelligible (they are significantly more […]

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